Invaluable Reddit AMA from Author Hugh Howey

There’s a huge amount of self-publishing wisdom in this Reddit AMA from Hugh Howey, author of the Wool series (here’s the lowdown on a Reddit AMA).  The main takeaway is that writers need to be patient.  With all the overnight successes in self-publishing (Amanda Hocking), one might be led to think that’s the way you become successful as a self-publisher.  But that’s not really the case.  It’s not even the case for the heavyweight JA Konrath, who’s been writing and publishing for years.

Really, self-publishing isn’t much different than traditional publishing.  Some people get lucky with a 6-figure book deal for a first novel, but many don’t have huge success until the breakout success of a fourth book that then helps sell the first three.  The trouble with traditional publishing is that they are less and less patient to wait for that fourth book to be a success and often drop an author before that happens.  Self-publishers can’t follow that same formula: it takes time to build a readership.

It took him four years to find success, and 8 or 9 titles for everything to come together. That jibes with Konrath’s success, who also recommends new writing as being the best marketing tactic. It’s heartening information for anyone who’s impatient about a book not taking off.

Q: How did you start to develop a readership? I have a short novel I self-published with Amazon, but I can’t figure out a good way to generate readership. I have a website and a blog and a facebook page, but I don’t know how to make those things reach out into the world for me. How much work do you do to promote? And how do you do it efficiently?

A: It took four years before my readership really exploded. What got me started at the beginning was being super active on several forums. I already had people reading and enjoying my posts, so I hoodwinked them into reading my first book. That won me a few fans (my most ardent fans have been people I was friends with from the beginning).

I did book signings, joined an active writers group, put short stories out there for free, and always worked to hone the actual craft of writing. Good works stand out. I had eight or nine titles available before one of them took off based on the merits of the story. Just be persistant and keep writing.

Q: What have been the limitations you have found with self-publishing? What have been the positives?

A: I used to think the biggest limitation was exposure, but it isn’t like many first time authors get end-cap space in bookstores or prime spots in the windows. Even traditional authors have a hard time gaining eyeballs. Most of them are spine-out in the deep shelves. They go un-bought and eventually get returned. I worked in two different bookstores for years, and I have traditionally published friends. The glamor I once thought was there really isn’t.

So I would say the biggest limitation is still the stigma. I’ve had a book at #1 in all of science fiction on the Kindle store, but if I want to go participate at an SF convention, I’m still a pariah. If I want to do a book signing in a Barnes and Noble, they’ll refuse me without checking my sales history, my reviews, my media mentions. The quality of your work is irrelevant in a lot of ways. The assumption is that if you could write worth a damn, you’d be with a major publisher.

What are the positives? They are legion. I write what I want when I want. I control the pricing. I see every single sales report. I get paid monthly instead of bi-annually. I keep 70% of the purchase price instead of 18%. And I have the thrill of doing it alongside my fans, who are primarily responsible for the growth of my sales. There’s something to be said for doing things the “indie” way.

Now lately, I’ve been courted by agents and TV/film people. I relented and allowed an agent to shop my top selling series to the big publishers. Their response has only cemented my conviction that self-pubbing is right for me. I can’t imagine some of these editors getting their hands on my work and doing the things they suggest. It’s comical.

Q: Out of curiosity, what changes did the major publishers suggest to you that rubbed you the wrong way?

A: They wanted to change the title. They want to take down my existing e-books, which have hundreds and hundreds of reviews that would be lost to the ether (both of these decisions border on the ludicrous).

Also, they are offering me far less in royalties than I already make. Instead of concentrating on a print release to ride on the smashing popularity of my top series, they just want to grab the e-rights and take what I’ve already established. My opinion is that they should leave the e-books as they are until the print book is ready for release, and then simply upload new versions to match the print edits. Keep what’s working in place and gain market share in bookstores. Instead, one publisher would recommend taking down what is paying for my groceries right now and release a hardback in January of 2013. Basically, I’d have to go get a day job while they mucked around with my story. 0_o

Q: If your books do really well on the e-book market, would you consider a re-release on the physical market?

A: I do have physical copies of everything I’ve written, but they are print-on-demand and available only through Amazon and my website. I started getting phone calls from literary agents when my books rose to the top of the charts on Amazon. I signed with one who was really excited and thought a major publisher would be interested. I expressed my doubts from the beginning, but reluctantly signed on. I figured it wouldn’t hurt for her to try; she doesn’t make money unless we pen a deal.

The process has reinforced my desire to stay independent. Publishers want to change the name of a series that has already sold 100,000 copies! That’s insane. Brand recognition is everything. And then one publisher said the series has sold “too well for them.” Their reasoning is that everyone who would ever want to read it already has. Again, that seems nuts to me. The book is still in the top 200 of the entire Kindle store. Hundreds of people a day are buying it. And these are just the people who own Kindles.

To answer your question: I have considered it, and I would consider the right offer from a forward-thinking publisher. But the chances are slim. I’m making more on my own than they could probably offer me.

Q: Self publishing and literary fiction – what do you think.. I think it seems more suited to genre work.

A: My bestselling series is my most literary in style. I would liken it to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” It’s still genre fiction, but it’s the least genre-fiction stuff I write.

But you have a good point. Most readers of literary fiction are (from my anecdotal experience as a bookseller for the past two years) not keen on e-readers yet. Their high tastes in prose extends to their fondness for physical books, it seems. That could pose a barrier for writers of literary fiction.

Then again, where does literary fiction sell at all? I love the stuff (LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is one of my most favorite recent reads), but the sad fact is that it doesn’t sell in any form near as much as genre books do.

Q: What’s your gross income been each of the past 4 years?

A: Four years ago: Less than a thousand dollars. Not even worth tallying. And most of that was from doing book events where I got every friend and relative to show up and buy a copy. Three years ago: Same. Two years ago: Same. Last year: I made somewhere between $7,000 and $8,000 dollars. Not enough to consider quitting my day job. This year: TBD. I made a year’s wage in January, which was when I saw that I needed to quit my day job. I was getting up at 3 AM almost every day to write and respond to reader emails and blog comments before going to work, then doing the same when I got home.

I will make well over six figures this year. And the government will take a HUGE chunk of that from me. 🙁

There’s a lot more there on his writing process, going POD, and more. Recommended.

  • Thanks for that. I’ll go follow up on the rest. Have to say I loved the first story of Wool. I would have read the whole thing by now, but after three defective downloads of the second one to my Mac Kindle app, I’ve given up. I’ll probably buy the paperback when I can get around to it.

  • An excellent post! Everything I read suggests that indie/self publishing is way better than traditional publishing, and this confirms every aspect of that. I’m still bumbling along with the first two books and a third due in a couple of weeks – just have to hang on till the fourth with fingers firmly crossed! Thanks for the timely encouragement.

  • I go with the patience. I’d also refuse to change my first books enough to cause their almost universally favorable reviews — and in some cases, superlative — to be “lost to the ether,” a decision not bordering on the ludicrous but exactly that. And I’d never change my book titles.